The other thing I find interesting about advice columns is the sort of Russian roulette exhibitionist nature of writing in to one. Advice columnists get, I would wager, at least hundreds of letters a day. With email and the fact that you no longer need to spend 37 cents to send something to one of them that number might be significantly higher. They answer between 2-3 a day at MOST, and sometimes fewer. They also have newspaper lead times of about a week (or so it seems judging on the delay between printing columns and then the responses to those columns). What all this means is that they are spectacularly bad sources of solutions to their problems. For minor issues of etiquette like when it's too late to mail thank you cards for wedding gifts they might make sense, but for serious problems? The chances of getting a response are pretty low (I realize that some columnists probably have staff members to respond to things they don't get to themselves, but I can't imagine those responses are much more than a referral to some organization adept at dealing with whatever the problem is.) Then there are the responses themselves. Simplistic, obvious, and often apparently off the mark. Often they withhold the logic behind the response and offer only plans of action. Treat the symptom, not the cause. The prose is mannered, from Dear Abby's antiquated patrician writing to Cary Tennis' creepy-warm handed guy who really wants you to like him and think he's a deep but humble fellow seeker of truth purple prose.
They're an entertainment, it's really that simple. I think virtually everyone knows that they could get better help from a licensed psychotherapist (although a lot of them are pretty incompetent) or even just an intelligent and caring friend. People don't read them for actual advice, they're like the Jerry Springer show of the newspaper trade. So why do people write to them? I think there are two reasons. 1) Exhibitionism, the desire to see your problems addressed in the paper and feel important and attended to. 2) Some of these people have nobody else to turn to. That, I think, is what really touches me about all this stuff. That there are so many people out there with problems like these who don't have ANYONE close to them that they trust to talk to. I don't know whether it's because they're too ashamed to talk to people or, and I think this is pretty often the case, because most Americans are too self-involved and too caught up in the repressive nature of the culture to deal with other people's problems. Whatever it is I find the idea of thousands of housewives and college students lacking anyone they can actually talk to both comforting and disturbing. Comforting because it means that I'm not so badly off in comparison. Whatever my faults and problems, my unpopularity and social stagnation, not only am I capable of talking about many of my deep and important concerns but I know about half a dozen people who would be willing to listen to them and offer whatever help they could. I don't think a lot of people have over half a dozen QUALITY friends, and those that do are very lucky. I feel disturbed because our culture allows people to be so alienated from one another that we can't even talk about the deepest parts of our shared human experience. The angst and pain and reality that shape our lives. A culture shouldn't do that. We should be able to embrace one another in our hours of need and offer whatever comfort and help we can. We should feel safe among those we call friend in revealing who we are and what we're going through. The deep sense of shame and distance imbued in us by our culture is one of its worst aspects, after the worship of money. Without deep connections and meaningful conversation we are all together alone in a crowd.
I see a lot of people who write in to these columns as crying out for such connection with their fellow human beings and not knowing where to begin. There's hope there. Hope that we can get past this superficial age and go back to the days of Socratic symposiums and meaningful conversation with out fellow humans. Advice columns are decorative, they cannot support the weight of social need, but they are a signal of it. I read them, in part, for signs of people reaching out to one another, looking for a hand to clasp and hold them tight.